In a Republican event that brought political dynamos old and new to New York for a lively day of tax and budget talk, former President George W. Bush and Gov. Chris Christie of New Jersey on Tuesday kicked off a series of panel discussions and break-out sessions that targeted President Barack Obama’s current fiscal policy.
The timing of Bush’s public appearance in the nation’s financial capital clearly coincided with the presidential election season as Mitt Romney looks increasingly likely to become the Republican candidate to face off against Obama in November.
Sponsored by the George W. Bush Institute, the Tax Policies for 4% Growth Conference at the New York Historical Society brought together a group of heavy hitters ranging from Bush and Christie to House Budget Committee chairman Paul Ryan, Bush deputy chief of staff Karl Rove, the former presidential candidate Steve Forbes, the former National Economic Council director Lawrence Lindsey and Republican governors from the states of Maine, Michigan, Oklahoma and Tennessee. Also on hand as the ultimate Republican éminence grise was Henry Kissinger, secretary of state under Richard Nixon.
Against a backdrop of a dozen American flags on the Historical Society’s main stage, about 200 enthusiastic audience members stood and applauded as Bush entered the auditorium to deliver some brief, unscripted remarks before the day’s panels started.
Looking tan and relaxed as he spoke to the roomful of party insiders, Bush said he was happily retired and focused on building his presidential museum that will focus not just on his legacy but the global principles of freedom and democracy. His current projects include supporting U.S. veterans, fighting cervical cancer in Africa and supporting women in Middle Eastern countries such as Egypt.
“I have decided to stay out of the limelight,” Bush said. “It’s not good to undermine our president. I’ve been asked if I miss the presidency. I really don’t, but I really do miss being commander in chief. We have a calling to save lives in the developing world. We can’t be isolationists and hope for a peaceful tomorrow.”
With his characteristic sense of humor, Bush also spoke of his mountain bike rides with wounded war veterans, saying, “I don’t like being beaten by a one-legged veteran on a mountain bike.”
Turning to the United States’ economic troubles, Bush spoke of the daunting entitlement overhang and high debt-to-GDP ratio. The key to private sector growth of 4%, Bush said, is to keep tax rates low.
“I wish they weren’t called the Bush tax cuts. If they weren’t, they’d be less likely to be raised,” Bush said, referring to the scheduled Jan. 1, 2013, end to his top tax bracket cuts. “If you raise taxes on the so-called rich, you’re raising taxes on the job creators.”
Christie continued that theme in another unscripted speech that focused on how he cured New Jersey’s budget deficit when he took over as governor in 2010. The Democrat-controlled state Legislature had crippled New Jersey over the prior eight years, Christie said, raising taxes 115 times as the number of state workers per square mile grew to the largest in the nation and private job growth fell to nearly zero.
“The Democratic leadership called me all kinds of names,” Christie (left) said. “We cut every department in the state budget. Everyone had to sacrifice.”
Christie, who has been talked about as a potential Republican candidate for president, is lauded in conservative circles for the tough line he took on slashing New Jersey’s budget in 2010, when he used an executive order to make $2.2 billion in line-item cuts.
A big man with a down-to-earth, populist style of engagement, Christie won over the audience of old-school Republicans at the Historical Society by talking about the need for bipartisanship in the increasingly broken political system in Washington.
“If you can do this in New Jersey, you can do it anywhere, and most importantly in Washington, D.C.,” Christie said. “Compromise is not a dirty word.”